It was Halloween in Toronto this June as music mongers scurried from club door to club door in search of sonic sweets and license to proclaim they caught the next big thing when they were shilling their own merch in a dank 20-seater beneath the arenas of the city.
But with the hundreds of bands performing over five days, it’s enough to give you toothache. And, with a veritable pillowcase of goodies to rummage through come Monday morning, how do you discern the king-sized Mars bars and the two-cent toffees? And with that, I’ll lay to rest the "sweet" analogy and resurrect the finer points of this year’s NXNE.
Making the long journey from Taipei were Unfamiliar Friends Party who would not let their limited English and karaoke-quality vocals undermine the feelgoodery blossoming on the dance floor at Cherry Cola’s Rock n Rolla Cabaret Friday night. The band stifled as best they could the childlike giggles that occasionally squeaked through the wall of Macbooks. They needn’t have bothered. The enthusiasm was infectious. Even the go-go dancer, perched high above the dance floor, seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself. Barring a massive shift in geography, UFP sightings in these parts will be sporadic at best so, do yourself a favour and make time for them.
Tiny Victories lived up to their moniker by overcoming the indifference of the diners at the back of Czehoski, who seemed more intent on throwing their money away on $25 pierogies than submitting to the user-friendly beats of this Brooklyn duo. The pair, armed with a drum kit and an assemblage of mixers, soundboards, and wires, exuded more charm than should be afforded the technically proficient. Rather than try to rise above the idle dinner conversation, the band implored the room to sing "happy birthday" to a celebrant at a nearby table, then used the sample as the axis of a new track. The result was organic and inclusive, and refuted the stigma of live electronic music as sterile and contrived, featuring the spontaneity that makes instrument-based shows so endearing.
Not to say that the performances of the conventional three-piece lineup are inherently spontaneous, bands regarding a spectacular live show as a birthright. Some perform by rote, as though they are unaware of the crowd standing before them, clapping out of protocol than appreciation. While 2011’s NXNE had its share of this sort of band — as it does every year — this could not be said on Saturday of Secret Cities, who entertained a packed Dakota Tavern with the right balance of austerity and whimsy. Precision exuded in the throes of a tandem drum solo was turned on its head when one drummer excused himself to perform an impromptu key-smashing on a nearby piano. Somber organ ballads gave way to cracking guitar rock which then morphed into stomping dance tunes, the band never letting up until the audience was in a frazzled and ecstatic mess. It is this breadth of style that should see them amass a considerable following.
Toronto’s Persian Rugs do not have this luxury, though this does not make them any less an exceptional band. Yes, they prefer their influences over cuff links but at least they are the right influences. With anoraks thrown over the head of every melody, their sound is the offshoot of so many fey Glaswegian bands but fresh enough to stand alongside such esteemed contemporaries as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Given the reception the latter receives during regular visits to Toronto, it is only a matter of time before our city stands up and takes notice of what’s taking root in our own backyard.
The Darcys are another matter altogether. The greatest compliment I could pay them is that, days after their Friday show at the Horseshoe, I’m still not sure how I feel about them. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like a Terrence Malick film or rice pudding, some things need to be carefully considered long after that initial consumption before you can confidently proclaim to the world that, when accompanied with raisins, they aren’t half-bad. The reality is that the Darcys perform exquisitely with tight execution complex songs weaving a rich tapestry of sound through the use of a variety of instruments. They don’t sing about first dates or shopping malls or other easily digestable subject matter (in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not entirely sure what they sing about but I know for a fact the term "food court" was never used). Such discombobulation is forcing me to seek out their recorded works which, in a way, makes their turn at NXNE a success.
Other bands I managed to see over the five days included Cults, The Dodos, Memoryhouse, Mode Moderne, and Library Voices, each worthy of a write-up had the exhaustion I was suppressing since Wednesday not taken hold as NXNE closed up shop for another year. That there is simply not enough time to touch on the talent that swells Toronto every June, indicates the respect the festival has earned. And while it can be frustrating rummaging through that pillowcase November 1st, it is a frustration that we, as concert-goers, should be happy to bear.